Fuzzy headshots rule gets clearer, the shootout debate, more notes
The NHL is inching closer to a headshots rule, but real obstacles remain
The debate has begun on whether the shootout's novelty has worn off
TV ratings for the Stanley Cup Final revealed suprising areas of interest
To the lengthy list of life's unanswerable questions we offer the following: What takes longer -- the recovery of an NHL player who's been concussed by a blindside hit to the head or the NHL passing a rule to finally and officially penalize that hit?
Twirl that one around on your Rubik's Cube for a year or two.
Yet to their slow but possible credit, the NHL's general managers did move the headache issue another inch up an interminably long hill by unanimously recommending on Wednesday that the league adopt a new rule next season that requires a five-minute major penalty plus a game misconduct for blindside shoulder hits to the head.
Of course, it's not really a rule until the members of the Competition Committee (a collection of players, owners and GMs) and the NHL Board of Governors --and perhaps the Players Association -- sign off on it. That would seem to put the lie to the league's claim that the commissioner can step in and make an immediate change to protect the game and the people who play it, but it does represent progress of a sort and that's a very good thing.
The proposal has gone from a non-starter for the majority of GMs to a series of grudging possibilities to a proposal last winter that read: "A lateral, back pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or is the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."
After taking some withering but not unexpected criticism for being vague and largely toothless, the league imposed a temporary solution that called for no on-ice penalties but a review for supplemental discipline by Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. The complaint that a minor was of no consequence and the limited amount that the NHL can fine a player would not act as a deterrent seemed to have some impact on the GMs who have now put some bite into the rule. They eliminated the possibility of just a minor penalty for such a serious infraction by mandating the call for a five-minute major plus a game misconduct.
The new proposal puts pressure on players and coaches to police themselves, as a major penalty can more easily impact the outcome of a game and no one wants to be responsible for an action that could cause his team to lose. The possibility of supplemental discipline won't have a major impact in terms of a fine, but it can be costly to a player in that he forfeits game pay for each match he misses due to suspension. In the case of a high-profile star, a suspension of just two to three games can result in thousands of dollars, perhaps a hundred thousand or more.
There's every chance that the governors will sign off on this version of the proposal, but it remains to be seen whether the players will use their voice on the completion committee to scuttle it. It's not that they are in favor of blindside hits or head shots in general, but suspension money has long been a sore point with the NHLPA. It has issued challenges to past rulings, arguing that by contract, players have a right to be involved in the crafting of major rule changes. The union could use this proposal to argue for a definition of that right via arbitration.
Further complicating the issue is that the length of suspensions is not written into the rule, making them arbitrary and in the hands of a league official (in this case, Campbell). That, too, is a sticking point with the PA in that supplemental discipline rulings have proven to be impossible to predict. Players will argue that different guys receive wildly different suspensions, often for what appears to be a similar infraction, and that opens the door to charges that some players receive preferential treatment. (See: Chris Pronger's "foot drop" suspension -- eight games for stomping Ryan Kesler's leg in 2008 -- opposed to Chris Simon's 30 for what appeared to be the exact same offense against Jarkko Ruutu.) All of this should make for a summer of interesting legal arguments.
Headshots and blindside hits have been a vexing problem for a league that often draws a fine and wiggly line in balancing player safety with the exceptional physicality the game is known for. The GMs debated (and often dismissed) the issue for the better part of a decade, but a recent and seemingly unending string of vicious, largely unnecessary hits to the head and the liability issues the league might face because of them have brought about a grudging, guarded change of thinking. This latest refinement of the penalty is the strongest yet, but there are still likely to be issues regarding just what constitutes a blindside hit or legal vs. illegal blows to the head. The judgment of on-ice officials is also likely to be disputed along with the never-ending supplemental discipline debate.
The first of what is likely to be a series of debates on something that might grow up to be an agenda item also took place in Philadelpia this week. Ken Holland of the Red Wings told the Detroit Free Press prior to the meetings that: "I'd like to see more games decided in overtime than shootout. I don't mind the shootout, I just don't want the shootout to decide so many games.
"My suggestion is extend OT from five minutes to eight minutes or from five minutes to 10 minutes," Holland added. "Then maybe do we go half of it four-on-four, half of it three-on-three? I just want to have a conversation to see if other people feel like I do."
It will take days, maybe weeks, to get a sense of what others in the room felt, but it's fair to say that Holland's proposal will open the gates of internal debate. The shootout came into being as a concession to fans who had long bemoaned the number of games that resulted in a tie after regulation and a brief overtime. The league thought of the shootout as a reward after a lost season (due to the lockout), and though there were murmurs of discontent from the GM ranks, public criticism was largely nonexistent given that it was an initiative from Commissioner Gary Bettman's office.
It was a given, however, that many old school GMs would think the shootout was a gimmick unworthy of long-term use. Though it proved wildly popular with fans at first, there is reason to believe the novelty has worn off a bit and far too many games are being decided by what amounts to a skills competition, not an overall team effort.
The number of matches decided by the shootout has risen from 156 of 272 overtime games in 2007-08 to 184 of 301 for 2009-10. Those numbers give weight to the argument that teams are often playing to get to the shootout rather than trying to win in regulation or OT. It will also be noted that the Flyers earned their playoff berth via a shootout on the final day of the regular season.
Holland's concept brings the subject out of the "just guys talking" mode to a forum other GMs can embrace or, at the very least, debate. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke acknowledged that the shootout has been a fan favorite but also said, "I think a lot of the rules changes coming out of the lockout were great, but this was a wrinkle, or a wart, that we may have to look at. I think when we put the shootout in, we never envisioned the unreasonable, disproportionate percentage of games that would be decided in a shootout."
In the oft-Byzantine workings of the NHL, that's a major step forward, especially in that it brings into question a directive from the commissioner. To his credit, however, Bettman has never said the shootout would be a permanent part of NHL games, so there may well be a change coming. It's not likely to be in time next season and certainly not before the league runs some finely-tuned focus group studies with the ticket-buying public, but at least it's now open for serious discussion.
If the idea does have a groundswell of support, look for it to be an agenda item when former player and newly-minted NHL executive Brendan Shanahan hosts a league-sponsored two-day research and development conference in Toronto in August. Shanahan held a similar conference during the lockout, a gathering that endeared him to NHL executives (though not necessarily to the PA). He's been charged with examining possible rule and equipment changes and there will likely be an exchange of ideas regarding how to revive fan interest in the All-Star Game.
I've always thought TV ratings for hockey are about as interesting as the experiment with heated skate blades, arguments for wood vs. composite sticks, and finding a home for Kansas City Scouts artifacts, but the overnight numbers for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in the U.S. are worth pondering.
It was a given that Chicago (25.1 rating and 39 share) would lead all markets in the overnights and Philadelphia would be No.2 (18.5 and 28). Interest is understandably high even though those markets have Major League Baseball and the NBA playoffs at this time of year. I wasn't shocked that Buffalo, a city that has fallen out of the top 50 in terms of TV market size but regularly does well in these polls, was ranked third, though its 10.2 rating and 16 share is impressive as these things go.
What was truly surprising is that Indianapolis (6.3 and 10), a city with no history of NHL interest, finished ahead of hotbeds Pittsburgh (4.9 and 8) and Detroit (4.4 and 7). Seattle (4.1 and 9) topped Denver (3.8 and 7). Even more surprising: Ft. Myers, Fla. and Las Vegas tied for the last spots in the Top Ten (3.7 and six).
The numbers show that hockey on a major TV outlet is a goal worth pursuing for the NHL. The league is regularly mocked for its no-rights-fee agreement with NBC, but the network that showcased hockey at the 2010 Olympics has just delivered numbers that beat several primetime shows on CBS and ABC. Some were summer replacements or reruns, but if there's an advantage to having hockey slosh into June it's that sports as appointment TV still beats the The Bachelorette, which can easily be shifted to a DVR, even in cities where the NHL was thought to be a non-option.
Can't help but wonder if the NHL won't be front and center when Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney accepts his still unnamed and untrophied General Manager of the Year Award. It's a newly-minted honor in a league that has more hardware than Home Depot, but in giving the inaugural award to Maloney, the league is, in some ways, rewarding itself.
The Coyotes were a ward of the NHL state this season after the team was thrown into bankruptcy. It was run by the league and, eventually, purchased out of bankruptcy by the league. The NHL last season oversaw the overall budget and floated the bulk of the operating costs.
To be fair, the award was voted on by all 30 GMs, five league executives, and five print and/or broadcast people whose names have been extremely difficult to find, but it's not as if the league made the decision from its "ownership" offices in New York City. Maloney, who outpointed George McPhee of the Capitals and David Poile of the Predators, was both a worthy candidate and winner.
Maloney made a smart pickup in hiring Dave Tippett as coach after Wayne Gretzky graciously stepped aside with training camp already underway. He also added key components to a team that hadn't made the playoffs in years, beefing it up during the season and the trade deadline with moves that not only got the "Yotes" into the tournament, but set franchise records for wins and points and extended the Red Wings, Stanley Cup finalists a season ago, to seven games in the first round.
Showing true old school sportsmanship, Maloney on Wednesday acknowledged that he voted for McPhee first and Poile second. He said he voted for McPhee because "his team finished first overall" and Poile because "he always does the most with the least. We all know how dangerous that team always is."
Interestingly, there was no mention of who got his third vote.
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